Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

DOMA Discrimination Against Lesbian Army Veteran Challenged in Court

Tracey Cooper-Harris, highly decorated Army veteran, denied spousal benefits because she is lesbian

Los Angeles, California – A highly decorated lesbian veteran of the U.S. Army is being denied disability benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and today the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed an important lawsuit to challenge DOMA on her behalf. Tracey Cooper-Harris served with honor in the U.S. Army for 12 years, and received an honorable discharge in 2003 after having received more than two dozen medals and commendations.  But because she married a person of her own sex in California, a perfectly legal marriage still in force, the United States government is denying her and her spouse Maggie equal disability benefits to those heterosexual spouses are receiving.

Cooper-Harris, who achieved the rank of Sergeant for her service in Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, was diagnosed in 2010 with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disabling disease of the brain and central nervous system for which there is no known cure. Government doctors determined that Cooper-Harris contracted MS as a result of her military service. Faced with a daunting future, she is trying to get her affairs in order as any responsible spouse would. Cooper-Harris received individual disability benefits, but since DOMA is still federal law, the government says that she and her spouse are not eligible for the spousal benefits her service truly entitles them too–all because of anti-gay discrimination, even after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).

Cooper-Harris said, “I dedicated 12 years of my life to serving the country I love. I’m asking only for the same benefits the brave men and women who served beside me enjoy. By refusing to recognize our marriage, the federal government has deprived Maggie and me of the peace of mind that such benefits are meant to provide to veterans and their families.”

The federal lawsuit, Cooper-Harris vs. United States, filed February 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the laws governing the Veterans Affairs policy that denies equal treatment before the law for Cooper-Harris and other married same-sex persons in the nation. Christine P. Sun, Deputy Legal Director of the SPLC, said, “The government’s refusal to grant these benefits is a slap in the face to the gay and lesbian service members who put their lives on the line to protect our nation and our freedoms. Especially given the recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it’s shocking that the federal government continues to demean Tracey’s years of service and the service of many others in this way.”  The case is being litigated on Cooper-Harris’s behalf pro bono (at no charge) by the SPLC.

February 1, 2012 Posted by | African Americans, California, DADT, DOMA, GLBTQ, Heterosexism and homophobia, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, Marriage Equality, Social Justice Advocacy, Southern Poverty Law Center, U.S. Army | , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on DOMA Discrimination Against Lesbian Army Veteran Challenged in Court

Honoring LGBTQ Veterans 2011

For Veterans Day 2011: The grave of Leonard P. Matlovich, Technical Sergeant, United States Air Force (July 6, 1943 – June 22, 1988).

“When I was in the Military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”– Leonard Matlovich 1975

We must not forget at what price LGB service members can now wear the uniform openly.  And, we dare not ignore the grave injustice to Transgender Americans who still cannot.

November 11, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Comments Off on Honoring LGBTQ Veterans 2011

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is History: We Must Not Forget Its Cost

Washington, D.C. – Today marks the advent of full repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the 1993 law making gay and lesbian servicemembers liable for discharge if they admitted their sexual orientation.  While there will be celebrations and night watch parties throughout the nation marking this historic day in the struggle for LGBTQ equality, we cannot afford to forget the terrible cost anti-gay discrimination has wrought in the Armed Forces of the United States.  So, today, we lift up the lives and patriotic service of four gay men who died because of the ignorance and bigotry of other servicemembers, and the systemic bigotry of the services themselves which at best permitted these murders, and at worst encouraged them.

Seaman August Provost of Houston, Texas, was shot to death on duty in a Camp Pendleton guard shack, and his remains were burned to erase the evidence of the deed on June 30, 2009 in San Diego, California. He had recently complained to his family that a fellow servicemember was harassing him because of his sexual orientation.  He feared speaking with his superiors about the harassment because of the threat of discharge due to DADT.  His partner in life, Kaether Cordero of Houston, said, “People who he was friends with, I knew that they knew. He didn’t care that they knew. He trusted them.”  Seaman Provost joined the Navy in 2008 to gain benefits to finish school, where he was studying to become an architectural engineer.

Private First Class Michael Scott Goucher, a veteran of the Iraq War, was murdered near his home in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, on February 4, 2009 by an assailant who stabbed him at least twenty times. Known locally as “Mike on a Bike” by neighbors and friends, Goucher was an assistant organist for a congregation of the United Church of Christ, and Captain of the neighborhood Crime Watch.  He also was a selectively closeted gay man, hiding his sexual orientation from his community. Goucher survived deployment in Iraq, only to meet death at the hands of homophobes back home.

Private First Class Barry Winchell of Kansas City, Missouri, was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat as he slept in his barracks by a member of his unit at Fort Campbell, Kentucky on July 6, 1999.  Winchell had fallen in love with a transgender woman, Calpurnia Adams, who lived in Nashville, Tennessee.  In the fallout from his murder, President Bill Clinton ordered a review of DADT, which resulted in the addition of a “Don’t Harass” amendment to the policy, but little else. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, who represented Winchell’s parents in litigation with the U.S. Army, demanded to know who in the upper ranks of Fort Campbell knew of the murder and its subsequent cover up.  The commandant of the fort was promoted over the objections of many human rights advocates. Winchell’s story has been immortalized by the 2003 film, “Soldier’s Girl.”

Petty Officer Third Class Allen R. Schindler Jr. of Chicago Heights, Illinois was murdered on October 27, 1992 in a public toilet on base in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. His killer was a shipmate who despised Schindler for being gay. He had been outed while on board the U.S.S. Belleau Wood, and was supposedly under the protection of his superiors until he could be separated from the service.  Schindler had called his mother to tell her to expect him home by Christmas.  Instead, the Navy shipped his savaged remains home to Chicago Heights before Thanksgiving.  The only way family members could identify his remains was by a tattoo of the U.S.S. Midway on his forearm.  Otherwise, he was beaten so brutally that his uncle, sister, and mother could not tell he was their boy.  Schindler’s murder was presented as a reason DADT should never have been enacted, but authorities in Washington brushed his story aside and enacted the ban against gays in the military anyway. Schindler’s story is told at length in Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims, authored by the founder of the Unfinished Lives Project, Dr. Stephen Sprinkle.

We at Unfinished Lives celebrate the repeal of DADT tonight with thanksgiving for the courage of lesbian and gay servicemembers who chose to serve their country in the military though their country chose not to honor them.  More than 13,500 women and men were drummed out of the service under DADT.  But in addition to the thousands who faced discharge and shame, we cannot forget, we must not forget, the brave souls who died at the hands of irrational hatred and ignorance–the outworking of a blatantly discriminatory policy that never should have blighted the annals of American history.  The four lives we remember here are representative of hundreds, perhaps thousands more, whose stories demonstrate the lengths to which institutions and governments will go to preserve homophobia and heterosexism.  We will remember with thanksgiving our gay and lesbian dead, for to forget them would be to contribute to the ills wrought by DADT.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Beatings and battery, Blame the victim, Bludgeoning, California, DADT, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay bashing, gay men, GLBTQ, gun violence, harassment, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Illinois, immolation, Kentucky, Latino and Latina Americans, Law and Order, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, military, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Protests and Demonstrations, Remembrances, Repeal of DADT, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Slashing attacks, Slurs and epithets, Social Justice Advocacy, stabbings, Stomping and Kicking Violence, Tennessee, Texas, transgender persons, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, Vigils, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is History: We Must Not Forget Its Cost

DADT Repeal Certification Friday, July 22nd, But at What Cost to LGBTQ Americans? A Special Comment

Pfc. Barry Winchell's grave

Both CNN and the San Diego Union-Tribune are reporting tonight that final certification of DADT repeal will take place Friday in Washington, D.C.  But our celebrations are sobered at the Unfinished Lives Project by the magnitude of the cost to the LGBTQ community in servicemembers’ lives and careers in order to get to this landmark moment. When Secretary Leon Panetta signs the documents of certification at the Pentagon, signifying that the chiefs of the Armed Services have previously reported to him that full and open service by gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers, sailors, marines, airwomen and airmen, national guardsmen and women, and coast guardsmen and women poses no threat or harm to the morale, unit cohesion, or mission readiness of the Armed Forces, a giant step toward full equality for LGBTQ people will be made.  Seventeen years of the most oppressive and blatantly discriminatory anti-gay policy in contemporary memory will be over; but not before the incalculable cost of the lives of queer servicemembers who died before seeing this day dawn. At the Unfinished Lives Project, we have invoked the names and stories of some of them: Petty Officer Allen R. Schindler, U.S. Navy; Pfc. Barry Winchell, U.S. Army; Pfc. Michael Scott Goucher, U.S. Army Reserve; Seaman August Provost, U.S. Navy.  May they and all the others they represent rest in peace! These patriots died outrageous deaths at the hands of hatred and unreasoning bias, enabled by a military culture that either encouraged violence against suspected LGB servicemembers, or at the very least turned a blind eye toward such violence. Celebration of repeal is in order, and celebrate we will. The dead are honored by this act of justice, signifying that they have not died in vain. But we will also be mindful that no stroke of a pen, even one so powerful as the one wielded by the Secretary of Defense, will eliminate homophobia and heterosexism in the Armed Services. Ships, barracks, and foreign fields of service will be haunted with the hatred that has been passed down from generation to generation of American military personnel. Backlash is in full swing, as we have seen most graphically among right-wing conservative military chaplains whose appeals to exempt their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and teachings as freedom of religion served to be the last bastion of “homophobia-masquerading-as-liberty” in the armed services. Thankfully, as certification on Friday shows, the vast majority of servicemembers of all ranks reject discrimination for what it truly is: un-American. In memory of all our LGBTQ servicemembers (of all faiths and faith-free, as the case may be) who have died in part or in full because of the ravages of hate crimes, we dedicate a portion of Fr. Thomas Merton’s most famous poem, written in memory of his brother, John Paul, killed in action in World War II, entitled, “For My Brother, Reported Missing In Action, 1943” [The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1977, p. 35-36]:
:

When all the men of war are shot

And flags have fallen into dust,

Your cross and mine shall tell men still

Christ died on each for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,

And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

The money of Whose tears shall fall

Into your weak and friendless hand,

And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall

Like bells upon your alien tomb.

Hear them and come: they call you home.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Asian Americans, Bisexual persons, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Latino and Latina Americans, Legislation, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, military, Military Chaplaincy, National Guard, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, Special Comments, transgender persons, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, Vigils, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Texans of Faith Storm U.S. Capitol for Human Rights

Washington, D.C. – The largest delegation of fair-minded Texas faith leaders since the conception of LGBT rights are on their way to the Nation’s Capitol to participate in the third Human Rights Campaign’s Clergy Call for Justice and Equality, May 22 – 24.  Twenty-two clergy, theologians, and seminarians from across the Lone Star State are registered for this year’s lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.  The Human Rights Campaign Religion and Faith Program mobilizes people of faith to advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people every other year, and among the important items on the agenda will be the full implementation of the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), anti-bullying efforts across the nation (such as the one just passed by the Texas House, strengthening the penalties for harassment and bullying in public schools), and the status of the Dream Act. Texans have a particularly tall order as grassroots citizen lobbyists, since both U.S. Senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, have consistently voted against human rights initiatives during their legislative careers in Washington. At the core of the Texas delegation are fifteen students, faculty, and alumni of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, the largest from any seminary or divinity school in the state.  Brite, founded in 1914 by an endowment from Marfa rancher Luke Brite, is located on the campus of Texas Christian University.  In former years, Brite was conservative on the issue of LGBTQ-inclusion, but now is the only accredited institution of theological higher education in Texas to extend welcome status to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender persons by action of its board of trustees.  Among the faculty are two openly gay and lesbian professors, and the number of LGBTQ students in the Fort Worth school is growing. “Students are learning how to take a stand for justice by becoming clergy for whom all people matter, and are eager to work for equality in public forums like Clergy Call. Our students are taking their roles as public theologians seriously,” said Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the Divinity School, and Theologian in Residence at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. “Each of the students who have traveled to Washington chose voluntarily to participate in Clergy Call because they believe faith calls them to be here.”  Billed as the largest interfaith gathering of LGBTQ and Allied Clergy and Faith Leaders in the United States, Clergy Call will bring representatives of faith communities from all fifty states to the capitol for training in faith messaging, skill-building for advocacy with legislators, interfaith worship, and person-to-person lobbying of senators and congresspeople.  This year’s headline speakers include Rabbi Denise Egger, Rev. Harry Knox, Bishop Gene Robinson, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Rabbi David Saperstein, Rev. Nancy Wilson, and Bishop Carlton Pearson.  Dr. Sharon Groves is the Director of the HRC Religion and Faith Program, based in Washington, D.C.

May 22, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, Asian Americans, Bisexual persons, Brite Divinity School, Bullying in schools, Cathedral of Hope, Clergy Call, DOMA, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), Dream Act, gay men, gender identity/expression, GLBTQ, hate crimes prevention, Homosexuality and the Bible, Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Campaign Religion and Faith Program, Latino and Latina Americans, Legislation, Lesbian women, LGBT teen suicide prevention, LGBTQ, Marriage Equality, Media Issues, military, Military Chaplaincy, Politics, Public Theology, Queer, Social Justice Advocacy, Texas, transgender persons, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Texans of Faith Storm U.S. Capitol for Human Rights

President Signs DADT Repeal: What This Means for America’s LGBTQ Community

Washington, D.C. – In a breakthrough moment for the LGBTQ community, President Barack Obama signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into law today.  The ceremony was held in the Interior Department to accommodate a large and emotional crowd of witnesses to the making of American history.  The meaning of this moment will unfold and grow over time.  But this much at least may be said now: LGBTQ Americans have moved one significant step closer to full equality because of this political victory.  The President noted that while the struggle to repeal DADT has gone on for nearly two decades, this day is a culmination of untold sacrifice and heroism on the part of LGBTQ servicemembers and their families for over 200 years.  From the American Revolution to the current Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, gay and lesbian patriots have fought for the freedoms they themselves have not fully known.  Most of their service has been hidden in the anonymity of history for obvious reasons.  To serve openly as gay was not tolerated in the American armed forces. The darker side of this history is the story of untold thousands who have been persecuted, harassed, harmed, and killed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender presentation.  The Unfinished Lives Project and other efforts have sought to chronicle some of these stories: Army PFC Barry Winchell, Petty Officer Allen R. Schindler, Seaman August Provost, and Army veteran Michael Scott Goucher, to name but a few.  Not only have the battlefields of the world been consecrated with the blood of LGBTQ American servicemembers.  The closets of the military in all branches of the service are likewise battlegrounds stained with queer blood.  The signature of President Obama should not become a coda to their memory.  If anything, this moment should give the LGBTQ community added impetus to remember and honor our war dead–both on the battlefield of honor and on the battlefields of American prejudice.  This moment is fraught with religious and theological significance, as well.  Now that this landmark legislation for human rights and dignity is the law of the land, the recalcitrant majority of conservative military chaplains must choose to fulfill their pledge of service to all the nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and guardsmen. Human rights and dignity are a prophetic dimensions of all the advance theologies of the world since time immemorial, but the savage side of religion has often displaced God’s favor for all people with a purist extremism that honors neither God or country. The crucial choice now is in the lap of the fundamentalist military chaplaincy, who have discounted the good service of LGBTQ women and men for decades, and the religious righteousness of their chaplaincy peers who have embraced LGBTQ servicemembers as children of God.  It is time for the fundamentalist chaplains in the armed services, including the chiefs of chaplains in the Army, Navy, and Air Force to either salute smartly and comply with the law, or take their pensions and go.  The choice is theirs.  The moderate and progressive religious communities in this nation are faced with another type of challenge.  They must re-evaluate their stance toward military service, and remove institutional and ecclesial impediments to honorable service.  Seminaries on the theological left will need to open their doors for training the next generation of military chaplains.  For the LGBTQ community generally, the call of this day is to become a more mature and reasoned community among the peoples of this nation.  Nothing has changed for military servicemembers yet, nor will it for quite some time, until the law can be implemented throughout the armed forces.  There will be continued bias and discrimination against queer folk in the military by the military.  But LGBTQ people are now offered a renewed sense of who we are: strong, proud, sacrificial, patriotic, and peace-loving–all at the same time.  This is a red-letter day in American history, and a rainbow-colored day in the struggle for full LGBTQ equality.

December 22, 2010 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Bisexual persons, DADT, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, harassment, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Latino and Latina Americans, Legislation, Lesbian women, military, Military Chaplaincy, Native Americans, Politics, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Repeal of DADT, Social Justice Advocacy, Special Comments, transgender persons, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on President Signs DADT Repeal: What This Means for America’s LGBTQ Community

Repeal and Remembrance: Gay Military Martyrs and the End of DADT

Fallen Military Servicemembers

Washington, DC – On a red letter day when lawmakers voted to end the most notorious anti-gay policy in the federal canon, LGBT servicemembers and veterans who have been murdered because of their sexual and gender non-conformity must not be forgotten during the celebrations over passage of repeal of DADT.  In a historic vote in the history of the human rights movement, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to end the ban on LGBT patriots from serving openly in the armed services of the United States.  Saturday afternoon, 65 Senators voted for repeal with 31 in opposition. A simple majority of 51 was all that was required for passage of the Senate bill, which is identical to the one passed earlier in the week  by the House of Representatives. Eight GOP Senators joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the repeal of the 17-year-old discriminatory policy that ended the military careers of 13,500 women and men because of their sexual orientation. Joe Manchin, the freshman Senator for West Virginia, was the only Democrat not voting for passage.  According to the New York Times, his office informed the public that he had a “family commitment” he could not break.The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature to set the repeal in motion.  GOP opponents of the repeal criticized the Democratic leadership of the Senate for the vote in the lame duck session just before the Holiday recess.  Senator Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee, disputed the Republican claims that Democrats were ramming legislation through just to please the so-called “gay lobby.” In remarks to the New York Times, Senator Levin (D-Michigan) said: “I’m not here for partisan reasons. I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.” Yet it is not only for the living that this vote is significant. Our military dead are honored by this historic vote to end anti-LGBT discrimination, among whom are far too many gay servicemembers who were killed because of their sexual orientation. Our gay military martyrs, murdered because of homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia in the armed services loom large in the memory of the LGBTQ community today because they are both a sign of hope and caution. They are a sign of hope that no more women and men need lose their lives in the military because of their sexual orientation and gender presentation. They are a sign of caution, because the passage of DADT repeal in no way guarantees the end of anti-gay violence in the military.  We must name our LGBT military dead until violence against queer servicemembers ceases forever: Seaman Allen Schindler was beaten to death by shipmates in a public toilet in Sasebo, Japan. PFC Barry Winchell was murdered with a baseball bat in the Army barracks at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Seaman August Provost was shot to death on base in San Diego, and then his body was set afire in a guard shack in the vain attempt to destroy evidence of the murder. Army veteran Michael Scott Goucher was lured into a fatal ambush by local youths near his home in Pennsylvania. These four are representative of the many more slaughtered by ignorance and hate by fellow servicemembers and civilians. Pundits say that after President Obama signs the Repeal Act into law, it will still take at least sixty days for the military ban to be lifted for LGBT military personnel. Until that time, the current discriminatory law stays in effect. But the culture of violence that harasses and kills LGBT women and men who wear the uniform remains virulently poised to take more lives until the root of fear is eliminated in the armed services.  To that end, the historic passage of the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is simply the beginning of a new campaign, in the name of our gay military martyrs, to replace the fear and loathing of the sexual minority with education and respect.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Asian Americans, Bisexual persons, Bludgeoning, California, DADT, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, gun violence, harassment, Hate Crimes, hate crimes prevention, Heterosexism and homophobia, Illinois, immolation, Kentucky, Latino and Latina Americans, Law and Order, Legislation, Lesbian women, military, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Politics, Remembrances, Special Comments, Texas, transgender persons, transphobia, U.S. Army, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Repeal and Remembrance: Gay Military Martyrs and the End of DADT

Phelps Funeral Protesters Assaulted with Pepper Spray: A Special Comment

Omaha, NE – Protesters picketing a military funeral in Omaha were assaulted by a man squirting pepper spray out his pickup truck window as he drove by them on August 28.  The assailant, George Vogel, 62, was arrested and charged with 16 counts of misdemeanor assault, and one felony count because the pepper spray hit a police officer.  A reporter was also affected by the spray. The motorist was also charged with child neglect since his own child was in the truck at the time of the assault, according to CNN.  Police confirmed that Vogel allegedly extended his arm from the cab of the Ford 150 pickup truck, and discharged a “large can” of pepper spray at the Westboro Baptist Church protesters.  The funeral was being held at First United Methodist Church for the late Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Bock, 26, who died in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on August 13.  The WBC protest at Bock’s funeral is part of Phelps’s strategy to publicize his campaign against gays and lesbians by targeting fallen U.S. servicemembers, since the United States has become a “fag-enabling” nation that is under God’s wrathful judgment.  Members of the church at the Omaha protest carried signs reading “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Blew Up the Troops” and “AIDS Cures Fags.”  The pepper spray assault occurred while nearly 600 members of the Patriot Guard Riders ringed the church to prevent the protest and counter-protest from disturbing the funeral services.  No members of the Riders were affected by the spray.  A major case involving a challenge to free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment has grown from a 2006 protest carried out against the funeral of a soldier from Maryland, in which the father of the deceased soldier sued Phelps and the church for 5 million dollars for harassing the family during the funeral.  Albert Snyder, father of the fallen soldier from Maryland, accuses Phelps and his church of emotional distress and anguish.  A lower court imposed a fine of up to 8 million dollars against Westboro Baptist, which was later reduced to a 5 million dollar award to Mr. Snyder.  A court of appeals overturned the verdict, citing the protections afforded by the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case in October of this year.  Supporters of the Snyders have lined up against defenders of freedom of speech as the case goes to the high court.  Phelps continues his schedule of protests with impunity.  While the content of Phelps’s protests is so disturbing that high emotions can be readily understood, the larger issue of freedom of speech and expression takes center stage for the Unfinished Lives Project.  We are under no illusions about the nature of Phelps’s work.  He is the most notorious homophobe of this age, and if a link could be successfully established between his hate speech and violence against LGBTQ people, as we believe does exist, he and his church members deserve the punishment of the law.  But freedom of speech is a defining right guaranteed all Americans under the provisions of the Constitution.  LGBTQ people are vouchsafed the right of protest and speech under the same provisions of the law, and to surrender to emotion, no matter how justified it seems in the short term would be to gag and throttle the struggle for human rights in this nation.  So, regretfully, the Unfinished Lives Project must support freedom of speech, even for one of the most noxious of our enemies.  We must believe that the rightness of full equality will win out in the end, no matter how spiteful the opposition becomes.  And, in the spirit of appreciation for the Snyders and all other families and friends of fallen U.S. servicemembers, we offer out sympathy and condolences.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | Condolences, Fred Phelps, funerals, harassment, hate speech, Heterosexism and homophobia, Law and Order, Legislation, Maryland, military, Nebraska, Protests and Demonstrations, religious hate speech, religious intolerance, Special Comments, U.S. Marines, U.S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Phelps Funeral Protesters Assaulted with Pepper Spray: A Special Comment

Second Gay Bashing Outrages Savannah

Savannah Protest Rally/Richard Burkhart photo for Savannah Daily News

Savannah, GA – A second gay man has come forward to report that he was the victim of a gay bashing in Savannah.  John Takats, a grad student at the Savannah College of Art and Design issued a statement to the press through Georgia Equality claiming that he was called a “faggot” and struck in the back of the head so hard he fell to the sidewalk on February 27, 2010. While he admits he did not come forward to issue a complaint to police at the time out of fear, Mr. Takats felt he had to come forward when news of the June 12 bashing of another gay man, Kieran Daly, by two U.S. Marines hit newsstands. Mr. Takats says that his boyfriend had stepped away to recover a lost item when four people, two men and two women, menaced him, shouting, “What are you looking at?” and hurling anti-gay epithets at him.  The blow to his head and kicks to his body stunned him, and the next thing he remembered was his boyfriend trying to revive him.  In part, Mr. Takats’ account is as follows: “As the males approached me they started swinging. I immediately put up my hands, in front of my face, to protect myself. At that time, clearly out of nowhere, one of the males struck me in the back of my head. I was kicked till I fell to the ground by either the same (or the other) male. At that time, I heard one of the females scream ‘Stop that!’ The group ran away from the scene. I was completely shocked, hurting and confused and I began crying.” Project Q Atlanta has a Mr. Takats full statement online.  The Daly case entered a new phase last week when the FBI and the local police began investigating whether that attack on Mr. Daly was a hate crime.  The Anti-Defamantion League has issued a press release praising the move on the part of law enforcement. Bill Nigut, Southeastern Regional Director of the ADL said, “If this is a hate crime, prosecution under the new law will send a strong statement to the people of Savannah that violence against gays will not be tolerated.”  Georgia Equality has learned from hard experience that the Savannah-Chatham Police Department has often been demeaning and unresponsive to LGBT complaints.  Kevin Clark, Georgia Equality’s Savannah Chapter head, told WSAV News 3 that these attacks are just the latest installments in a pattern of violent anti-gay hate crimes in Savannah over the last five years.  Speaking to a protest rally of 150 citizens calling for justice in the Kieran Daly gay bashing case, Clark said, “It should only take one or two individuals who have been attacked or know of others who have been attacked to get the attention of someone in leadership in this community– that in our opinion should have stepped forward way before now and condemned the violence and put out a loud call for swift just action here.”  Savannah is a “military city,” close to the Marine Corps Air Station in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina, where both of Daly’s alleged Marine attackers were stationed.  But what sets Savannah apart from other cities with large military bases nearby, according to Jim Morekis of Connect Savannah, is its “large and influential gay community.”  Morekis concluded his op-ed piece, “Let’s hope that the two Marines who attacked Daly receive a fair trial, and if found guilty receive a punishment suited to the crime. And let’s hope that society, and the military, can continue to move beyond ignorance and prejudice. A good start would be for the Georgia legislature to put a fair hate crime law on the books so we can join the rest of the nation.”

June 25, 2010 Posted by | Anglo Americans, Anti-LGBT hate crime, Beatings and battery, FBI, gay men, Georgia, harassment, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Law and Order, Legislation, military, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Protests and Demonstrations, Slurs and epithets, Social Justice Advocacy, South Carolina, Stomping and Kicking Violence, U.S. Marines | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Second Gay Bashing Outrages Savannah

Dad Teaches Little Son to Hate Gays, Jews, All Americans: Phelps’ Legacy of Hatred

WBC often uses child protestors - PinkNews photo

Topeka, Kansas – Steve Drain, a member of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, is proud of his 7-year-old son Bo.  Young Bo has learned to hate on a grand scale: Gays, “hundred and hundreds of Jews,” all citizens of the United States, are bound for eternal hellfire.  ABC News 20/20 reports that from the cradle, children of the notorious, gay-hating Topeka church are taught that anyone who violates their interpretation of the Bible is bound for everlasting punishment.  Gay people are particularly singled out in Bo’s young mind, thanks to the indoctrination he has received from his father, mother, and teachers at WBC. Bo sincerely believes gays by the millions are headed for damnation: “You get destroyed and you get put in hell. Hell is like a burning place where it can never be stopped, burning, and it can burn millions of people every day,” he said.  Because the government allows diversity, and for the most part does not punish lesbians, transgender people, and gays, Bo has been taught that all Americans are de facto “fag enablers.”  His father, Steve, was so impressed by the message of Phelps back in 2000 when he came to film a story on the church, he returned to Florida, packed up his family, and moved them to Topeka to join the 70-member congregation.  He and his wife Luci live just outside the church compound with their four children.  The allure of the church is not unlike other utopian, world-hating sects from the past: certainty based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and morality, security in a swiftly changing world, salvation from hellfire, and purity from the stains of sin and immorality.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has highlighted this church before, and others like it because of the potential for violence that religious bigotry and hate speech breed.  While the connection between indoctrination in hatred and physical violence is hotly debated, and courts have upheld the first amendment rights of groups like Westboro Baptist Church to protest at synagogues, LGBT churches, schools, and the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers, there is little doubt that when fringe personalities act violently to harm vulnerable individuals and groups, “true believers” like WBC see the hand of God in the deeds.  When the Drains take their children to picket the funerals of military service members killed in the line of duty, they and the other members of WBC praise God for taking the life of another “fag enabler.”  According to ABC’s 20/20, Steve Drain, Bo’s father, said the church arrives at the funerals to let families know their loved ones are in hell because they fought for a supposedly damned country. “Remember what we all say: No God fearing man or woman would lift a finger fighting for a country awashed in sin like this,” Steve Drain said to his son.  Though the Drains have an estranged eldest daughter, Lauren, who rejects the hatred her family and WBC has taught her, the younger children are content to protest, picket, and preach for hate, at least for now.  Bo tells ABC News, “I’m preaching and I’m going with this church, and that’s what the church says. I’m going to go with that my entire life”—A sobering thought for Father’s Day.

June 19, 2010 Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Florida, Fred Phelps, funerals, gay men, harassment, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Kansas, Lesbian women, military, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, religious hate speech, religious intolerance, Slurs and epithets, Southern Poverty Law Center, transgender persons, transphobia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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